Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘pitching advice

Part two: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Kate Burt is a freelance writer and editor for publications including the Independent (“where I’ve also been a commissioning editor – so I know the other side!”), and the Guardian. She also blogs at yourhomeislovely.com

Publication: Melody Maker (RIP)

Fee: About £30 as I recall!

What were you doing at the time?

I was a staff writer on a teen magazine, my first proper journalism job. Then I met the editor of Melody Maker [a now defunct music publication] on the bus to work, which I took every day, and he kept on at me to write some freelance reviews for the mag as we’d always chat about music on the bus. It became a regular thing and started me on the road to full-time freelancing.

How did you get the commission?

My first commission following a pitch – rather than bus chat – was for the Guardian Guide. I had pitched dozens of ideas to them for months and been rejected over and over but it was my dream to write for them at the time. I learnt that I needed to give them something no one else would – so I offered an interview with the then obscure Derren Brown whose first late-night C4 TV show was called Mind Control or something.

I got the PR to provisionally agree that I could interview Derren if the Guardian said yes so I could put that in the pitch, which is important (what if they say no after you’ve pitched?). I outlined an idea that I would try out six of his mind control tricks on various strangers and write about how it worked. No staff writer had the time for that, it was quite quirky and funny and introduced a new talent that fitted the Guide’s entertainment remit. Getting the word “new” into a pitch, I learned, is key, as is being game to get out there and understanding what is a good fit for the publication.

Make your idea unique to you

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Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Brent Crane is an American journalist who moved to Asia in 2014. He has since traveled around China and Myanmar, scoring bylines in the Daily Telegraph, Vice, Aljazeera, and Roads & Kingdoms, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com

I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

My chosen topic was the unprecedented dangers of freelance reporting from the Syrian civil war and how this related to the sea change that was taking place in the world of journalism in general. I’d been turned on to the idea from a book that I found in the AI office, a memoir by freelance photojournalist Paul Conroy called “Under the Wire”.

It took me forever to narrow the subject down from “the problems faced by freelance war reporters” to “the problem faced by freelance war reporters in Syria and why this matters for journalism as a whole”; but I had a lot of help from the editors at AI.

Pitching is something you can only get better at with practice, but that experience did teach me to never stop asking myself “Yeah but why should anyone care?” when formulating a story idea. A topic being interesting is not enough. It must be newsy in some way if an editor is going to bite.

My 1500-word feature went through numerous edits. It was a major learning experience for me.

To research it I spoke with eight highly accomplished freelancers, most of whom had reported from Syria. Being able to pick their brains about how they operated as freelancers was invaluable to me as an aspiring journalist. And also they made for great first-time interviewees, having all been in my shoes at some point. Talking with them humanized the field.

Before that, a freelance journalist in my mind was a kind of mysterious character and freelancing was more of a theoretical career choice than a realistic one. Actually meeting some lone wolf writers I had a kind of lightbulb moment: If these people can do it, so can I. That was a huge confidence booster for me and a major push for me to take the leap.

And for the first time in my life I’d actually made an actual sum of money writing. Holding that check for $200 in my hands I thought anything was possible.

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4 ways to instantly improve your pitching – freelance journalism

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  • Think Visual

If you can write a pitch where the editor can ‘see’ the story, see the characters and the setting, then you’re immediately inside the editor’s mind, a good place to be. Just a couple of good sentences that can bring a character or some aspect of the pitch to life. Be vivid and show details that can make an editor stop and think. These words from Guy Davenport were influential to me not just for journalism but for writing in general:

Harry Levin, at Harvard, taught me a lot, especially about iconography, how to read images in a text—that literature is as pictorial as painting or sculpture. [Source: Paris Review]

  •  Think visual, visual, visual

Sorry to hammer home this point but it’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve pitches. I like to play with font colours, use bold where necessary, inject relevant photos inside the email, and hyperlink anything that might need clarification. You can use these formatting tools to emphasize points or themes. Just don’t go crazy, your central idea should always be the focus but a bit of extra effort will help your email stand out.

  • Is it a complete story?

Don’t pitch topics or subjects, pitch stories. Pitch ideas that are wrapped in a story. What’s the difference between a story and an idea? To quote Richard Morgan, a complete story is one with “interesting characters in an interesting situation that changes over time in an interesting environment”. The story can also demonstrate a principle or universal theme adding depth and meaning, forming a ‘take-away’ feeling or message for the reader.

  • Have an outline

You should have an outline of what the story will look like, who you’ll interview, the basic structure of the piece, and the estimated final word count. It pays to imagine for the editor what the content of the article will be and how it’ll develop paragraph by paragraph.

Show you have the expertise by quickly sketching which named people you’ll interview and who they are. It’s also good sometimes to offer options in your treatment of the story: a more intimate interviewee-based feature, or an omniscient analysis with multiple characters? Editors like surety so demonstrate you have a clear understanding of what the story will be and how it will progress.

How I Got My First Ever Paid Freelance Gig

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It had all started with a burning desire. The time was 2009/10, the setting mostly my university dormitory. It was the first year of my journalism degree and I had one hot desire to be published in a national newspaper.

And in late spring, in the dog months of the academic year, when students were beginning to laze around dorms and on campus, settling into dreamy thoughts in the warming days when finally the effort was rewarded, culminating in a byline freshly and eternally emblazoned on a piece of paper that had been printed by The Guardian.

I went about it quite systematically I guess, looking back. At first it all started with asking questions. You’re watching TV with your flatmates and something is mentioned on the news or in a sitcom. “Huh, I wonder why that is?” or “yeah that’s interesting, but I wonder if X is also like that?”

One time I was thinking about Robin Hood, because the film starring Russell Crowe was due to be released. I thought to myself “hmmmmm…I wonder if there are real-life Robin Hoods?” IDEA! 

At the time I was also reading books like ‘Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction‘ and ‘Good Writing for Journalists‘ which I either bought or loaned out from the uni library, and paying particular attention to the sections about pitching. They mentioned that you should always pitch to the relevant editor, the editor who’s responsible for that section ie music or film or business etc. It advised that having a name and addressing your email to that name was vital. I proceeded to ignore some of that advice.

I checked online and on Wikipedia and found that there were indeed several cases of real-life Robin Hoods.

I found the phone number for The Guardian’s switchboard and asked them to direct me to the ‘music and film desk’. They did so and I found myself speaking to an editor. I proceeded to pitch over the phone (not really something you should do often). I explained to them that I had this article and that it would be good to coincide with the release of the new film.

The editor explained that they had already planned some content around that movie. After this failure, I proceeded to blanket email the desks of most of the national newspapers with my article. Here was the email I sent:

Hi there, to coincide with the release of the film Robin Hood, I have written a 600 word article on real-life Robin Hoods.

The article is structured in a list system, with each figure as a headline and subsequent info. They range from modern to historical times.
The article could go in the paper, or in the online edition.

My name is Lu-Hai Liang and I have published in local papers and student media. I am a Journalism BA at Bournemouth University.

Thanks for your time, please get back to me if you are interested.

Suffice to say, my first ever pitch was a no-go. But I continued to walk the road between asking questions and then turning those questions into saleable pitches. It’s not completely natural to think in this way. It requires, like many skills in life, commitment, patience, and most importantly, practice.

It took me a few pitches more before I struck lucky. And I was very fortunate – sometimes it can take 10, 20 pitches before you land your first. In fact, it took me a long while before I got a byline in a national again – more on that later.

This is the pitch which led me to my first ever paid freelance article:

Dear Ms. Wooley,

Would the Guardian be interested in a short article about the difficulty of Chinese exams, specifically the gaokao, the chinese university entrance exam, which chinese teenagers have just taken. The exams are the only thing considered by universities, so no interviews or recommendations, and ‘questions’ on the exams include obtuse prompts such as: “Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground”.

Many thanks, Lu-Hai Liang

Notice the difference between this pitch and the previous one. I am addressing a named editor. I’m offering interesting, tantalizing details about the article. There are many flaws too. First of all, I’d already written most of the article – not something a regular professional freelance should do (we just can’t afford to). There’s a very noticeable looseness in the sentences, like as if a breathless, eager young journalism student had written them. One line sentences, not multiple sub-clause sentences, are the name of the game in pitches. But there’s a certain charm to the pitch I suppose.

Here is the editor’s response:

Dear Lu-Hai Liang
This sounds quite fascinating. Can you send me any cuttings of your work?
Alice

Very terse. Editors are terse people. Busy folk, they are. Below is my response:

Dear Ms. Woolley,
I’m a Journalism student at Bournemouth University. I have written by-lined articles for my local newspaper, The Hastings Observer – including a news report, film review and band interview. I’m going home tomorrow where my copy of the newspaper is, so I can’t scan them for you until tomorrow.

I’ve written up the article for your consideration. For a journalism student, by-lines are, of course, much needed. Any edits or further information needed, please let me know.

I have also written for my student magazine. My online portfolio can be found here: http://buzz.bournemouth.ac.uk/?author=299

Many thanks, Lu-Hai
p.s. I will scan the cuttings and the magazine article for you tomorrow, if your interested.

And then her response, which was one of the sweetest, finest emails I’ve ever received:

Lu-Hai
I really like your article!
I will need to edit it a bit but I would like to use it in Education Guardian asap. Too late for next Tuesday’s issue but hopefully the one after.
No need to scan your cuttings as I am happy with what you have done.
Do you have a mobile number for any queries?
Best, Alice

The 400-or-so-word piece was published by The Guardian, both online and in the newspaper. My fee was £151. I was deliriously happy.

It took me 2 years before I was published by The Guardian again (online and unpaid), so don’t think it’s so easy to break into but it’s much much more accessible than people realize.

***

If you’re serious about freelancing I am sure you have the wherewithal to Google how to do it, read the right books and practice. But here is the single most important piece of advice and inspiration that I’ve come across (which unfortunately cannot find the source):

“You know as editors we always want pitches, actually I’m surprised sometimes I don’t get more”.

And here is an uncommonly good guide to pitching: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/08/how-not-to-pitch/279193/